Joseph Stack’s suicidal act of flying his light plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, seems to have vanished quickly from the horizons of the media. Nobody in the public sphere wants to dwell on the implications of what he did that day: setting fire to his home, destroying all his property and his own person. His act was relegated to the realm of madness, outside that of everyday experience and “normal” guys.
But his suicide statement, which is articulate and meaningful, makes it clear that Stack was not crazy. What did he want? Something quite simple: security in retirement. He had learned early in life not to trust corporations for his retirement needs, after US Steel raided pension funds in the 1980s. He resolved to build his own personal fortune by becoming an independent contractor as an engineer, which he believed entitled him to tax relief – just like the “big boys.” After all, the ideal of individual independence is fundamental to the U.S. national psyche.
His plans were destroyed: first by the IRS in the 80s, then the L.A. depression of the early ‘90s, divorce, the dot.com bust and 9/11, a failed move to Texas, then prosecution by the IRS for undeclared income. It reads like a contemporary history of failed dreams. He felt powerless in the face of a government agency that was unable to deal with the super-rich, who stash all their money off-shore to avoid paying a dime to the common wealth, but would pursue small proprietors with utmost ruthlessness.
Finally he decided he could not take any more and had to make a stand, had to add his body to the count of those “dying for freedom.”
So: terrorist or patriot?
Robert Weiner, former spokesman for the White House National Drug Policy office and the U.S. House Government Operations Committee, has no doubts about it. “He’s a domestic terrorist. He wrote a confirmed suicide note saying he was mad at his tax bill, the national health care stalemate, and the bailout helping corporations and not people. He opposed the government and our laws, and flew a plane into a federal building to make his point. If that’s not terrorism, what is?” he asked.
But Stack was not as politically specific as Weiner implies. What he was expressing was a general, inchoate resentment about the government and state precisely because it did not match up to what he was taught government should be. He believed that he had the right to accrue wealth like the big corporations, and his problem was not only that he was prevented from doing so, he was being punished for attempting to do so while the directors of major corporations and banks were being rewarded even after embezzling public funds. It was the principle of equality before the law which was being broken, that of “justice for all”.
As Paul Craig Roberts points out, the gap between government and governed is as large today as the gap between England and its colonies in the eighteenth century. “Anger is building up. People are beginning to do unusual things. Terry Hoskins bulldozed his house rather than allow a bank to foreclose on it. The local TV station conducted an online survey and found that 79 per cent of respondents agreed with Hoskins’ action.”
Joe Stack spoke for an undercurrent of populist rage that is building up, unseen in its full dimensions, but which cannot be channeled by teabaggers, Republicans, or an increasingly corrupt political system. The social contract is broken. It is a portent of the future, in its own way a message of patriotic despair.